Culture and Context Matter when Thinking about the Phenomena of Ownership

– by Ulises Espinoza

The evolutionary social sciences have long sought to comprehend human commonalities. Among these inquiries, a central focus revolves around identifying the traits that collectively compose the so-called “human nature” of our species, in both their psychological and behavioral dimensions. It prompts us to ponder whether certain traits, transcending cultural boundaries, are universally present during early childhood. This often involves the establishing of connections between these putative universal or prevalent traits and their evolutionary origins, shaped by the forces of natural selection in the distant past. One particularly intriguing arena of exploration is in the domain of ownership, and the conceivable underlying psychological and cultural norms and regulations that govern it.

It’s likely that all humans have the capacity to recognize ownership in themselves and others. However, it is an open question whether there is a specific, species-typical human psychology of ownership, and whether that psychology contains particular rules or principles. In principle, it is possible that ownership is a purely cultural phenomenon. But there may also be evolutionary roots to how we conceptualize ownership and to the domains to which ownership is extended. In a recent paper, H. Clark Barrett and I delve into the intriguing question of whether ownership has possible universal features. We explore a set of norms called “first mover norms,” which suggest that the person who takes the initial action or makes the greatest effort towards an ownable object is socially recognized as its rightful owner. These norms can apply to various tangible and intangible items. Studies have shown that children, in primarily Western samples, tend to develop these first mover intuitions during early to middle childhood, suggesting a potential universality. Cross-cultural research has also supported these findings, although with some variations in developmental patterns. However, when examining ethnographic evidence, the picture becomes more complex. While first possessor rules exist in non-Western legal systems, many societies have diverse ownership norms. Ownership rights can be communal, partial, or subject to negotiation based on principles like kinship, sharing, stewardship, use, and need. Even in cases where first mover norms appear to apply, they often don’t confer permanent, individual ownership, as other cultural principles determine rights.

Our investigation ventured into the realm of ownership within Achuar communities, renowned for their distinctive fusion of individual autonomy and robust communal values. To shed light on the subject, we conducted experimental scenarios involving ownership claims in two culturally pertinent domains: land and hunting. To ensure cross-cultural comparability, we also included participants from the United States. Among the American participants, the notion of “first possession” held considerable sway in their judgments across various scenarios, whether related to hunting or land. Their consistent preference for the first possessor as the rightful owner aligns with the historical and cultural influences in American and European societies, where the concept of first possession has exerted a profound influence on the development of legal and cultural norms. Conversely, Achuar participants showed a less consistent bias towards first possession, depending on the context. In hunting scenarios, they recognized the person who captured a game animal as the owner, reflecting their cultural practices. However, when it came to assigning ownership of land, they prioritized factors like use and improvement over mere first possession. This reflects their belief in land stewardship and the idea that ownership is not static but earned through active use and care. These results highlight the dynamic nature of the of the use of first-mover norms, particularly concerning their role in determining actual ownership across diverse cultural contexts. Americans, and potentially Westerners more broadly, appear to lean toward the heuristic of first possession, while other cultures, exemplified by the Achuar, consider a broader spectrum of factors when adjudicating ownership. The concept of ownership is nuanced and exhibits considerable divergence on a global scale, challenging the notion of a universally shared human comprehension of this concept.

Our findings underscore the necessity of exercising caution when extrapolating from specific cultural samples to the broader global population (Barrett, 2020). This holds particularly true for various facets of human psychology, including those, like ownership, that are profoundly influenced by cultural factors. It suggests that studies conducted in the United States and Europe may possess limited applicability when seeking to generalize findings to broader populations. It prompts us to reevaluate the notion that an evolved psychology of ownership, while potentially existing in humans, may be significantly influenced by cultural distinctions and the intricate tapestry of cultural history. Our study represents a modest and preliminary exploration of ownership intuitions within Achuar communities. We believe that future research endeavors in this community, as well as in other Indigenous communities characterized by distinct ownership traditions diverging from those of European-descendant communities, hold the key to presenting a more comprehensive portrait of the variations in human ownership psychology and the commonalities that may exist across diverse human societies. Each contemporary human community serves as a valid exemplar of the myriad potential configurations of evolved human psychology, each bearing an equally extensive cultural heritage. Rather than idealize certain communities as superior or inferior exemplars of evolved human nature, evolutionary social scientists can reap significant benefits from examining the complete spectrum of contemporary human psychologies. This approach provides valuable insights into the essence of human nature, elucidating both its defining characteristics and the boundaries that demarcate it.

Read the original paper: Espinoza, U., & Barrett, H.C. (2023). Cultural and contextual variation in first mover norms of ownership: evidence from an Achuar community. Evolution & Human Behavior, 44(6), 584-596.

This article is part of the Special Issue – Dispatches from the Field Part II.